This Is Far From the Deadliest Plague in Living Memory

Masks, but still at work and no social distancing: London secretaries in 1968. A Devil’s Curmudgeon.

Does anyone remember the Obama pandemic, or the Woodstock pandemic?

Of course, neither of those were their actual names, but their concurrence with both periods in America serves to highlight the absurdity of the current panic over the Chinese virus pandemic.

In the late 60s there was something much worse in the air than the fug of bong smoke, patchouli and unwashed hippies. In the northern summer of 1968, a deadly new influenza outbreak appeared in Hong Kong. It may have started even earlier, in Mainland China, but this is yet to be confirmed). From Hong Kong, it spread across Asia, then into Europe. By the end of the year, troops returning from Vietnam brought it back to America.

The Hong Kong flu pandemic had two distinct waves, peaking in the Decembers of 1968 and 1969. In Europe the worst peak was in December 1969. Europe witnessed a reality reminiscent of the most imaginatively apocalyptic failed predictions of doom-mongers like Neil Ferguson. In Germany, there were so many corpses that undertakers couldn’t keep up: garbage collectors had to bury the dead. Even then, corpses had to be stored in subway tunnels. In parts of France, half the workforce was bedridden. Dead really did pile up in hospitals. London’s hospitals were also overwhelmed.

In the US the worst peak was a year earlier, in December 1968. A state of emergency was declared in New York. The death toll the following December was not as severe, but still 30 000 Americans died. In total, 100 000 Americans died in the pandemic.

The U.S. population was also much smaller in 1968. Adjusted for population, the American mortality rate from the Hong Kong flu was nearly double that of COVID-19.

Yet, even as tens of thousands of Americans were dying, life went on with what passed for normality in the late 60s. Not only was the country not locked down, even rudimentary social distancing was ignored. In fact, one of the largest and best-remembered mass gatherings in US history occurred. Woodstock: three days of peace, love and pandemic.

Woodstock: no social distancing – and not much hygiene, either. A Devil’s Curmudgeon.

Fast forward exactly 40 years.

The 2009 Swine flu pandemic only caused a tenth of the deaths as the Hong Kong flu, but it was still devastating enough, reaching 13 000 deaths in all. But, with 61 million cases and 274 000 hospitalisations, it was far closer to overwhelming the US’ hospital system than even COVID-19.

Even more telling was the government response – or lack of it. The first deaths occurred in the US in April 2009. Two months later, it had spread to 15 states. Yet, not until over 1000 Americans had died did the Obama administration bestir itself. Belatedly, at the end of October – seven months after the disease arrived in the US – Obama declared a national emergency. Just two weeks later, 4 000 Americans were dead.

By contrast, President Trump declared a national emergency in mid-March 2020 – barely two months after the first U.S. case was detected and just six weeks after Trump first publicly addressed the then-looming pandemic in his State of the Union address. At that stage, the U.S. had recorded less than 60 deaths.

But Obama’s lazy response to a deadly pandemic, indeed the whole pandemic itself has been largely forgotten – inasmuch as it was ever reported at all.

The Hong Kong flu pandemic even more so. Everyone knows about Woodstock: almost no-one knows that there was a devastating pandemic which killed more people than COVID-19. Jeffrey A. Tucker of the American Institute for Economic Research writes that, “I was 5 years old and have no memory of this at all. My mother vaguely remembers being careful and washing surfaces, and encouraging her mom and dad to be careful”.

The country was not closed down. Schools stayed open (some faced closure, not through government fiat, but simply because there were too many students and staff away sick to keep them open). Restaurants, bars, theatres, all ran as normal. Planning for Woodstock began even as the pandemic reached its deadliest peak in January 1969.

The media barely even mentioned the worst pandemic for half a century. “Some people die,” the Wall Street Journal laconically noted during that deadly January. The New York Times relegated the story to page 49. Otherwise, the media strenuously focussed on the Space Race, Vietnam, student protests and the hippie revolution.

There was no media panic and barely any attention from politicians. Medicos and the general public shrugged and accepted the death toll and got on with life.

So, the 1968/69 pandemic was twice as deadly as the 2020 one. The U.S. government was slower by months to respond a deadly pandemic in 2009. Neither forced wholesale shutdowns and their attendant social and economic devastation.

What’s changed in 2020? Are we really so much more easily frightened and controlled, and so much less resilient than we were ten or 40 years ago? Are we so easily prepared to surrender our freedoms?

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